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Riskology

Looking at risk in a new way

About the author

Ari has written about financial products and investing for The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Pensions & Investments. Find him on Twitter.  

(Harley Schwadron)

(Harley Schwadron)

Virtually every bit of financial advice — resolutions if you will — offered at the beginning of the year boils down to one easy-to-understand but hard to follow-through-on principal: make better, more-informed decisions about how you spend, save and invest.

The turning of the Gregorian calendar — and the tax year in many countries — is as good a time as any to reflect on prior choices, correcting those deemed foolish and enhancing those worth repeating.

Yet, like many things these days, annual financial resolutions now seem more conjured by media and marketers than by actual people. So let’s take a hard look at the unseen costs of our everyday, off-the-cuff financial decisions. And keep in mind, most of these costs are psychological first, before they’re countable in dollars, euro or yen. Even the mere fear of financial loss can cause us to act irrationally, reducing risk at a time when we should be taking a chance or trading long-term certitude for a short-term gamble.

So, for those inclined to resolve this week, keep these ‘riskolutions’ in mind.

Be specific

Take the time to understand how your emotions and biases influence your financial life, says Joe Duran, chief executive officer of United Capital, a national wealth counselling firm.

“Be specific about what you are going to do to relieve those biases,” he says. “Write it down.”

Duran, whose firm has nearly $17 billion in assets under advisory, said that, collectively, we make money decisions based on happiness, fear or commitment. Recognise your biases first by determining which emotion or state of being motivates you.

Happiness tends to drive overspending and under-saving, according to Duran. Fear causes over-saving and limited enjoyment (ever think to yourself, “I should have bought the cheaper seats”? Exactly). And commitment brings excessive selflessness and sacrifice to the point of self-disregard. For instance, you feel guilty about not making dinner for your family so you skip much-needed exercise. Each money motivator, in excess, can be harmful to your personal and financial life.

If you are in a relationship (burgeoning or committed), the New Year is a time couples should plan out, individually and together, their biggest priorities “as a financial creature,” Duran said. Each person writes down their top financial priorities and the couple must “resolve” a combined “top three” and then determine how they will act upon them throughout the year.  For instance, if one partner wants to try to “spend guilt free” and the other would like to see their grandchildren more often, devise a way where smart spending is directed toward family experiences as opposed to things.

Make conscious decisions

Do you ever fill up your car with fuel at a particular service station, even when you know there is a consistently less-expensive option is close by?

“Most of us are making unconscious decisions when it comes to money,” said Duran.

Conscious, well-reasoned decisions — often reserved for big purchases — tend to be made with rigor, logic and a degree of calmness, said Duran. But when disputes arise over the $12 glass of wine versus the $10 one, those arguments are not about the $2 differential, he said. Instead, it’s often about other, larger financial choices (running up your mobile data, splurging at a “sale,” etc.) gone undiscussed. 

“Unconsciousness left unchecked causes so much confrontation,” Duran said. A simple thing like putting a rubber band around your most frequently used credit or debit card — requiring you to remove it and thus think about why it’s there when you pay for something — is a tilt toward a more conscious decisions.

Another way to make better decisions is to get more information. Debra Kriebel of Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Maryland, advises clients to make more use of financial mobile apps for credit cards, banking, investments and insurance.

“The technology is there for your benefit,” said Kriebel. “Use it.”

Set spending alerts. Get text message notification on card-not-present transactions to check for fraud. Check in on your portfolio (but don’t trade!)

Stay diversified

Last year was a good year for global stocks. The MSCI All World Index gained more than 20%, thanks largerly to significant gains in the US and other developed markets. Emerging markets — China, India, Brazil — were flat to down in 2013, according to MSCI Indexes.

But the first few days of 2014 should already serve as a reminder to investors that financial markets move in both directions.

Rarely does one high-returning asset class provide a repeat performance in the following year.

Jonathan Smith of DT Investment Partners in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, advises investors reviewing their portfolios this month to consider: “Am I diversified enough?”

The concept behind diversification is age-old — don’t put all your eggs in one basket — but it is hard to honour following a year in which concentrated portfolios of risky stocks outperformed 2012’s popular picks tied to safe income and dividends.

Now is the time to check your risk levels and rebalance. Sell your winners; take your gains and get in-line with ‘The Benchmark of You.

“The worst thing you could do now is flee from diversification,” adds Smith.

Look ahead

Finally, Pinnacle’s Kriebel admonishes resolution-makers to use the New Year to layout any milestones or pivot points (change in job, a new baby, going back to school) they expect in the year.

Even if the transitional event isn’t purely financial on the surface (what isn’t?!), a formal financial advisor or even an informal financial sounding board can help draw out the big (and little) financial implications to begin planning for now.

“Milestones are a good time to reconnect with your money,” says Kriebel.

Happiness tends to drive overspending and under-saving.

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